Driving can be stressful, tiring, and demanding on the mind and body, yet little thought is given to the physical wellbeing of employees when they are behind the wheel.
At-work drivers are almost 50% more at risk of accidents than other motorists, even with higher mileage taken into account. They account for a third of all collisions, or 1,000 deaths and 13,000 serious injuries each year in the UK and, according to RoSPA, many of these could be avoided by explaining the benefits of a healthier lifestyle more clearly.
We’ve looked at some of the key health areas affected by driving and how motorists can improve their mind and body, to be fitter and safer behind the wheel.
The problem of a tired mind on drivers
Symptoms: Although alcohol is commonly perceived to be the biggest cause of accidents, sleep deprivation can actually impair driving more than being over the legal blood/alcohol limit. A lack of deep sleep causes the brain to process information more slowly, delaying reaction times and reducing the driver’s ability to concentrate or make decisions.
Effects: A recent study by Loughborough University showed fatigue was a contributory factor in 20% of fatal or serious motorway crashes. Tired drivers are also 50% more likely to be seriously injured or killed than those who are properly rested, because in many cases they don’t make an attempt to avoid the crash. Yet research by the Department for Transport showed over half of respondents had driven while they were tired, adding that the figure was limited because it only covered those who admitted to it.
Cure: Short naps of up to 15 minutes are the best way to boost alertness. Caffeinated drinks can be helpful too, but research in America has shown the effects are short-lived, with slow reaction times returning within an hour. Naps and caffeine should be seen as emergency solution, though. The best cure is to plan drivers’ duty cycles to avoid extended working hours.
Caffeine is a one-hit fix, but not a cure
Energy drinks are good as a quick fix, but they’re no substitute for regular breaks. Having a high-caffeine drink is a one-off hit – you can’t repeat it, as this type of drink does not produce the same effect in a couple of hours’ time.’
Big meals burn energy and cause tiredness
Symptoms: During digestion, the brain diverts blood to the gut to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, causing a drop in oxygen to the brain itself. The larger the meal, the more energy is required to digest it and the more drivers will feel drowsy as a result.
Carbohydrate-rich meals, such as chips or pasta, can also be problematic. The high glucose content of these foods causes the body to release insulin to speed up absorption into the body, but causes a rise in the levels of a chemical called tryptophan in the brain. When it reaches the brain, tryptophan is converted to melatonin, which is a hormone that promotes sleep.
Effects: The period between 2pm and 4pm is the second most common time for fatigue-related accidents, and these are often caused by the after-effects of eating a large meal.
Cure: Drivers should avoid stodgy lunchtime meals in favour of lighter snacks and salads to kerb early-afternoon drowsiness and stay hydrated to maintain concentration – the brain relies on water to function properly. Taking a break after a large meal can also reduce the risks.
Take a packed lunch rather than stock up at services
Jill Joyce, senior policy and research adviser at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), recommends taking sandwiches, bottled water and a flask of coffee or tea for long trips, avoiding the temptation to rely on whatever fat and sugar-rich snacks are available at motorway services and fuel stations en route.
Stress causes bad decisions to be made
Symptoms: The feeling is caused by the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism that prepares us for physical challenges. Under pressure, this causes the brain to release adrenaline, a stimulant, which increases heart rate, tenses the muscles and changes the way we process information.
Effects: While this allows us to make decisions more quickly, which is ideal for responding to immediate threats, stress usually means they’re not considered fully, which can be dangerous when driving a car. Drivers under stress make decisions because they are thinking instinctively and short term, a sort of “tunnel vision” and not planning and assessing their actions over longer term.
Prolonged periods of stress are also very tiring for the body, and over time leads to the same slower brain functions as fatigue.
Cure: Stress is caused by not feeling in control, so preparation for every journey can help at least take that element of uncertainty out of the equation. Neil Greig says: ‘Knowing what to expect ahead in terms of delays, giving yourself plenty of time for the journey, having fuel in the car, knowing the car is in good shape mechanically and knowing your route etcetera will all help reduce worry.’
Music has also been shown to calm drivers. Softer tunes can slow brainwaves, which in turn lead to a reduction in the heightened heart rate and breathing caused by stress.
Work is stressful, and driving doesn’t help
RoSPA says 85% of motorists find driving itself stressful, regardless of other pressures, so ensuring drivers are fully prepared, trained and relaxed for the journey is vital.
The problem of poor posture on the body
Effects: Long periods of being sat in badly adjusted seats puts stress on muscles and joints, leading to long-term neck, arm, leg and back pain.
Cure: Many companies give advice to avoid poor posture while using computers, heavy machinery or other office equipment. But it’s just as important to ensure drivers adjust their driving position appropriately too: RoSPA advises fleets to consider work vehicles in the same bracket as other heavy machinery. At the very least, a decent demo session should be undertaken, especially for long distance drivers before they commit to a car for three or four years.
Most cars now offer heavily adjustable seats, rake and reach adjustment for steering wheels and headrests which can be fixed to prevent whiplash in an accident – if they don’t, should they be on the choice list?
www.forecourtfuels.co.uk can show you the best deals based on your individual requirements, from your estimated fuel spend to the size of your fleet.